Known as the City of Medicine, Durham and the surrounding area have a high number of essential medical workers, many of them struggling to keep the rest of us safe and disease-free.

But a bill passed recently by the General Assembly that will probably be signed by Governor Cooper to offer parents additional childcare options may put the children of those essential health-care workers at risk.

As part of allocating how to spend $1.1 billion of the state’s share of the federal Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds, the state also relaxed requirements that childcare facilities follow strict guidelines.

Tucked into House Bill 1105—better known as Coronavirus Relief 3.0, which expanded broadband access to rural areas and allowed schools to operate without threat of a loss of funds because of reduced enrollment—was language that allowed temporary childcare centers to bypass a number of safety regulations. 

They are no longer required to ensure that employees have background checks, including those for child-abuse charges, or are CPR or first-aid certified or can pass a TB test. Additionally, centers aren’t required to report confirmed COVID-19 cases to public health officials, and their facilities don’t have to pass fire department regulations.

To continue to offer child care options beyond the summer, the state’s YMCAs asked if they could continue their summer programming and give students places to do their virtual instruction while schools are operating remotely.

The state’s Child Care Commission attempted to ease restrictions by having the facilities, including the YWCA, Boys and Girls Clubs, and parks and recreation centers, contract with local school systems so they could operate during the pandemic. But the facilities wanted more.

The General Assembly, with HB 1105, eased restrictions allowing them to continue to operate and not comply with restrictions required of the state’s childcare facilities. 

The bill also loosely defines child care centers so they can include any group wanting to watch children during the day, such as churches, other nonprofit organizations, or even groups of parents creating learning pods in one of their homes.

The pandemic has resulted in all of us having to do things differently and adjust our schedules to ensure that we are safe and not spreading COVID-19. But those alterations should not put children at risk.

Without background checks, parents don’t know who could be working with their children. They may have previous convictions for child abuse. They may have COVID-19. The facility itself may have fire department violations. The list of potential issues and problems is unlimited.

Language in this bill was created by the House Republicans and offered Democrats little opportunity to participate. Additionally, because the bill moved through the House and Senate so fast, the public was not allowed to review what was included. As a result, we have a flawed law.

My Asheville colleague, Senator Terry Van Duyn, attempted to offer amendments that would have required the facilities to have at least one person CPR or first-aid certified, ensure that staff can pass a background check, and notify local health departments of COVID-19 cases among children or staff. But that effort failed.

In the interim, our children are at risk.

How can we ask our frontline health-care workers and all the others who work so hard every day to put their children at risk so that we can get medical care, buy groceries, ride public transportation, tend to our elderly, and do all those things we need to survive?

Contact your local state elected officials and let them know you want this changed. You want your children and the children in your neighborhoods to be safe. You should expect nothing less.

Natalie Murdock represents N.C. State Senate District 20.

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